The William Benton Museum of Art, Connecticut’s state art museum and beloved University of Connecticut staple, stands unassumingly tucked into a quiet corner of campus. It houses everyone’s favorite cafe, The Beanery, where you can grab a drink or snack and relax before you peruse the carefully selected art exhibitions upstairs. And now students will have a chance to visit the charming museum even later in the day, because the Benton is open until 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month for “First Thursdays at the Benton.”
Last night was the first time the Benton hosted the event, and the bevy of activities the museum offered made for a relaxing and entertaining visit. For someone’s first trip to the Benton, I am happy to say that I had a surprisingly fun time. Whether you’re with company or looking for a little solitude, the museum offers an engaging and calming experience where you can wind down and appreciate some art.
The museum employs a group of approachable and welcoming staff members, from the greeter to the staffers who organized the night’s scavenger hunt, so the atmosphere is comforting the minute you walk through the door. I was immediately greeted and directed to sign up for the Benton’s free student membership, which offers perks like laptop stickers that feature a piece from the current exhibit on display. The Beanery was selling drinks at a discount, as well as preparing itself for its Open Mic event that welcomes performers from all across campus to showcase their skills.
Housed in the corner next to the coat room was a station loaded with supplies to make Valentine’s Day cards for one dollar. The museum offers card-making specific to the seasonal holiday at the time, and there were plenty of people making cards for loved ones at the table.
The art exhibits are displayed on the second floor of the building, with the Gilman Gallery showcasing “From Old Masters to Revolutionaries: Five Centuries of the Benton’s Best,” and the main gallery containing “The Business of Bodies: Ellen Emmet Rand and the Persuasion of Portraiture.” The latter exhibit was my destination, as a scavenger hunt was currently in play.
“This was our first run of ‘First Thursdays at the Benton,” Margaux Ancel, a Community Engagement staff member, said.
“We’ll be doing it throughout the semester until May, on the first Thursday of every month,” assistant curator and academic liaison Amanda Douberly said. “There will be lots of activities, tours, scavenger hunts and live shows with musicians and artists. It’s a fun time.”
The scavenger hunt was the highlight of my trip, as the questions allowed me to explore the exhibit to its fullest. I was able to truly appreciate the exhibit, as opposed to walking around aimlessly as I might have done in my solitude. From candid clues such as “How many dogs can you spot in Rand’s portraits?” to “What U.S. president commissioned Rand to paint his portrait?” I learned quite a bit about Ellen Emmet Rand, an underappreciated Connecticut artist from the late 1800s and early 1900s. She painted over 800 portraits in her lifetime, seeking to feature women and establish her name in the art industry. Her oil portraits are sleek and stylistic, and the coordinating mannequins with outfits correlating to the sitters’ outfits were a welcome detail to the exhibition, as was the prize: A Benton-themed drawstring bag containing a gift card to the campus cafes, a collection of stickers, a button and probably more art-themed goodies that I had not been able to investigate.
“I learned a lot during the scavenger hunt that I hadn’t known before about the artist on display,” second-semester Environmental Science student Phoebe Mrozinski said about her first Thursday at the Benton. She enjoyed taking photos in the themed photo booth, stocked with props and a charming vintage portrait frame. “The scavenger hunt was very challenging but very fun. The portraits and matching outfits were beautiful as well.”
The Benton pays homage to talented artists from around the area and contains a curated collection that exudes appreciation for Connecticut-born artists. The museum is a not-so-hidden gem for those who have visited it before, and will prove to be a pleasant surprise for those who will surely visit it in the future. If you’re looking for a fun and unique date on campus (like for Valentine’s Day) or a place to unwind after class, the Benton is the place to go.